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Ukraine: What A Mess We’re Making


The hope that the Minsk Agreement would lead to a permanent ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine lasted as long as it took the artillery salvos around Debaltseve to land on their targets. The Russian-backed rebels were not about to leave that strategic enclave deep in “their” territory in the hands of government forces; nor was the government keen on giving it up. Intense fighting continued well-after Foreign Ministers agreed on terms in neighboring Belarus, not just artillery duels but tank battles as well; eventually it was the Ukrainian Army that was forced to withdraw its forces back to Artemivsk, some 35 kilometers away.


Since then the ceasefire has generally held, according to OSCE observers[1], with frequent but low-level violations across the buffer zones[2]. But no one expects that to last: both sides are attempting to rest and reorganize their forces locally, while the Russians continue to send weapons and “volunteers” to the separatists. These forces do not yet control all of the territory of the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk and Russia may consider a land corridor to Crimea to be both desirable and even necessary.

Meanwhile, the situation on both sides of the border continues to deteriorate. The people of Eastern Ukraine, which hasn’t enjoyed what anyone would have described as a “sparkling economy”, is now essentially ruined. There is no money for food, supplies arrive only sporadically, and basic infrastructure has been devastated by the fighting. Sanitations and water services are in desperate need of repairs, much housing has been rendered uninhabitable and basic health services have collapsed. The situation is bad enough that Médecins sans Frontiéres has warned of the possible outbreak of epidemic tuberculosis among the population[3].

The situation looks far from stable and neither side can be said to wish for it to continue. The rebels are not pleased to have the “Kiev fascists” squatting on a substantial amount of their territory and their lack of resources, strategic depth and legitimacy leave them utterly dependent on the Russians. Poroshenko’s government, for its part, is bowing to the inevitable: it recognizes that it cannot hope to win a military victory against the active participation of regular Russian troops and is therefore being pragmatic. But while Ukraine can survive the loss of Crimea, even if it hasn’t officially recognized this loss yet, the loss of the heavy industry and population of the Donbas would be a major blow to an economy that is already on the edge of ruin.


Russia’s economy is also suffering, but in the race to the bottom, Ukraine has a long lead. Nor does it help that Russia is Ukraine’s principal trading partner and key supplier of energy. Long before economic pressure and sanctions can force Russia to negotiate, the Ukrainian economy would be demolished.

Europe is deeply divided over the conflict and the continuation of sanctions beyond their July expiration is doubtful. Western Europe is desperate to make a deal to normalize relations with the Kremlin, but they can’t be seen to do so as long as the Russians continue to flout international law. Most of Eastern Europe, mainly Poland, Romania and the Baltics, view the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to get the NATO (but mainly the US) to expand into their territories in a big way. Then there is a small, but vocal bloc of EU states consisting of Greece and Hungary that are acting as apologists for Putin and blaming European and American meddling for starting this debacle in the first place.

They have a point: the support of the Europeans and US State Department for the protesters in Maidan Square, and then their loss of control – if that’s what it was – when pro-Russian President Yanukovych was ousted from power were decisive elements. It was amateur hour across the board, with no one from Warsaw to Washington apparently stopping to think how Moscow might react to a violent coup against a key ally. Clearly, it didn’t go over very well, any more than Washington would tolerate a Russian-backed coup in Ottawa or Mexico City. The loss of Ukraine to NATO would mean the loss of the home port of the Black Sea Fleet as well as a buffer 700 kilometers deep. For a nation that needed every inch of territory when it was invaded by Nazi Germany, such considerations remain highly pertinent[4].


Russia is therefore in a quandary. Certainly it wants the sanctions against it to be lifted and for its economic activity with Europe to return to normal, but the strategic importance of Ukraine is greater than any amount of economic pain the West could reasonably be expected to inflict. Russia’s actions in Crimea and Donbas were prompted by the ascension of a pro-European government in Kiev and its need to protect assets and interests; however, they are only driving Western Ukraine deeper into the arms of the US and EU: precisely the outcome Putin wants to avoid.

Russia’s ideal outcome would include official recognition of the annexation of Crimea and some formula for the permanent “Finlandization” of Ukraine. That is not unreasonable or unachievable, from the Kremlin’s point of view. The European Union has two problems with this outcome: it legitimizes the use of force to change an international boundary as well as legitimizing secession by referendum.

Realistically though, Ukraine was decades away from meeting the minimum requirements for EU or NATO admission even before the devastation of civil war; the EU wouldn’t really be giving anything away by promising not to accept an application to join. The real spoilers are the annexation of Crimea, the presence of Russian troops in Donbas and the declarations of independence of the two break-away regions. Russia, with sufficiently ironclad guarantees from Europe and the US, might be willing to pull out of Donbas; but it is hard to see Putin’s government back away from the annexation of Crimea.

European acquiescence to the annexation of Crimea is also hard to contemplate. To begin with, there are too many European nations with their own secessionist movements to view the official sanctioning of the Crimean referendum and annexation with equanimity. Spain tops the list as it faces a Catalan regional election cum de facto secession referendum on the 27th of September, but Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom[5] have active independence movements as well. Perhaps more importantly, all the leading negotiators – Germany, France, Britain, Poland – remember the last time a small European state was browbeaten into accepting the secession of territory to a larger neighbor in order to preserve “peace in our times”: that was Czechoslovakia in 1938. Things didn’t turn out so well then either.

As spring arrives and brings with it better weather for campaigning, Russia retains the initiative. It is very possible that the Russians will continue to observe the cease-fire and work on sowing discord in Europe, at least until the sanctions against them expire. Good behavior might help to ensure that they are not renewed.  But that is not Russia’s endgame. What would a good outcome be for Mr. Putin?

1. The best outcome would be to apply sufficient economic and political pressure on Kiev to provoke the fall of the Poroshenko government. The Russians would then attempt to back an oligarchic candidate that would be less pro-EU and more cooperative with Moscow. At this point, they are not likely to get another Yanukovych, nor anyone who would be willing to join the Eurasian Union; but even strict neutrality between Russia and the West would be favorable to the former.

This is not only a good outcome for Mr. Putin, it is not at all unlikely. Mr. Poroshenko is an oligarch himself and though he won the election and the democratic mandate that goes with it, he depends on the cooperation of other oligarchs to rule effectively. The dismissal of Igor Kolomoisky from the governorship of the vital Dnipropetrovsk region shows that the pro-Western government remains fragile[6]. It would not be hard to imagine one of these powerful rivals agreeing to an accommodation with the Kremlin to ensure their own accession to power and subsequent survival[7].


2. If Poroshenko’s government proves too difficult to topple, Russia can maintain the pressure via the separatist regions. So long as Ukraine is divided and weak, it poses no threat. Nor will the EU or NATO allow Kiev into the club so long as there is a frozen conflict going on inside the country.

This is not really an outcome at all, only recognition that there is no favorable solution at hand. In pursuing it, Mr. Putin runs the risk of overplaying his hand. NATO might finally be frightened enough to rearm in earnest. The West might begin to send the Ukrainians defensive military supplies, making Russian intervention costlier and more difficult to deny. The economy might suffer unexpected reverses or ongoing military casualties might undermine support for the government in Russia itself. The Russian people can withstand a tremendous amount of stress, but the memories of the disastrous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the endless stream of coffins it provoked remains alive in their consciousness. Mr. Putin does not want the Donbas turned into his personal “Afgantsy”.

3. Another suboptimal outcome for the Russians would be a recognition that Western Ukraine was too alienated and too firmly entrenched in the Western camp to neutralize. If Moscow ever came to that conclusion, it might decide that the best of a bad job would be to grab as much territory as possible for the new rump state in the People’s Republic of Eastern Ukraine. There is no doubt that Russia has the capability of rapidly overrunning what is left of the Ukrainian Army; the question is how far can the Russian’s push without provoking a Western military response?


The maximum advance the Russians could contemplate would include everything east of the Dnieper River as well as the southern Black Sea coast to Odessa and the Romanian border. This would give Russia a coveted land link with Crimea as well as one with Moldova, another client state. However this “drive to the West” would reach the border of Romania, a NATO member: and under the stress and misunderstandings inherent in such situations, there might be shots exchanged between Russian and NATO forces.

Rather than pursue the maximum gains and risk an unwanted war with NATO, the Russians might prefer to stop at the Dnieper. This would give them the same situation up north, as well as the land link with Crimea, though without Odessa or the link to Moldova. However a halt to the advance so far from NATO would be highly unlikely to draw a Western response.

Nonetheless, this remains a poor third option for Russia as it still involves “giving up” Western Ukraine to Europe and NATO, a reaction that would almost surely follow an overt Russian invasion in the East. Russia is unlikely to invade the whole of Ukraine: besides the increased possibility of a war with the West as Russian tanks approach both Romania and Poland, absorbing a country of 40 million people, many of whom would be very hostile, is not a simple thing. The whole country would have to be garrisoned by a substantial number of troops, as well as providing a substantial number of frontier forces to protect the new border with NATO. And the entire economy and infrastructure would have to be rebuilt. It is probably more than the Russian economy, budget and military could undertake.


A critical question remains the posture of the United States. The Americans have been acting in the background, allowing the Europeans to take the lead in negotiating with Russia. That may be a ploy to leave President Obama free to criticize any deal that looks too “Munichesque” without suffering political fallout back home. It may also mean that the US is not yet serious in negotiating with Russia. There is no doubt that the Obama Administration has been frustrated by Mr. Putin the past; his support for Iran and his role in propping up Syria’s Bashar al Assad have been particularly galling to the US President. But beyond the conflict of personalities that led to a rapid breakdown in the “reset”, US and Russian interests have continued to diverge as Russia gained strength and began to pursue traditional interests in her neighborhood.

A strong Russia, exerting influence in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe is not something the US wants. A Russia that is “meddling” in the troubled politics of the Middle East is something the US wants even less. The support for the dissidents in Maidan was almost certainly an attempt to “poke the bear” and humiliate Mr. Putin in a sensitive area as a response to his support for Assad in the June 2014 chemical weapons stand-off. It was badly bungled, to be sure; but the US is nonetheless benefiting from the negative image the Russian military intervention has caused. Extending the conflict, but not broadening it, may be the US play at this time: a desultory war in Eastern Ukraine that takes its toll of Russian lives and Russian treasure may be what the Administration is hoping for.

This would be a risky gamble. It is a strategy without an endgame in sight: simply weakening Russia temporarily hardly seems worth the risks the US and Europe are running. Anyone expecting a democratic coup in Russia to overthrow Putin is deeply deluded; it is as likely as a pro-Israeli coup in Tehran solving the nuclear stalemate. Destabilizing Putin’s government might very well be possible, but whatever comes afterwards would be even less savory and possibly less rational than Mr. Putin is. Getting the Russians to completely pull in their horns and acquiesce to Kiev’s reestablishment of control over Lugansk and Donetsk, along with their entry into the EU is also delusional.

It is possible that the US is buying time to rebuild NATO, return troops and equipment to Europe, and build a consensus at home and in Europe that these actions are both necessary and desirable. That requires a Russian bugbear, of course. Yet even if this were the strategy, it seems doomed to failure. Western Europe is simply not in an economic or demographic position to rebuild its military forces to Cold War levels. The Eastern Europeans are willing, but lack the money and manpower to defend the whole continent by themselves. It will take a great deal of money to prop up the tottering Ukrainians and we meanwhile run the risk of splitting our divided and hapless European allies even more thoroughly.

What would be the proper strategy?

  • The US should return to Europe in force, with an armored brigade permanently stationed in Poland and pre-positioned equipment to enhance our capabilities for rapid deployment;
  • Europe needs to take a greater responsibility for its own defense. I’ve advocated in the past the establishment of a European Defense Fund: those nations in the West that are unwilling to build up their own militaries and deploy them in the East should nevertheless contribute to a fund that will enable the Baltic states, Poland and Romania to modernize and expand their own militaries;
  • Finally, the US and Europe need to recognize that there is no good endgame scenario that doesn’t involve negotiations and compromise with the Russians. The basis of such negotiations must be a treaty that neutralizes Ukraine permanently – they can go neither West nor East. It will almost certainly involve concessions on the part of Kiev towards greater federalism in Donbas. And it will likely involve recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea, though this last bit can probably be left out of any initial agreement so that both parties may save face. A raw deal for the Ukrainians, no doubt, but the country can survive without Crimea and the Russians are as likely to give it back as we are to hand over Maine to Canada.

The time to begin serious negotiations is now, while the ceasefire still holds, however tenuously. Putting Russia back in the box it occupied during the 1990’s is not a realistic goal and playing chicken with a nuclear-armed state is not advisable.


A final reflection on the mess in Ukraine: one of the most serious and long-lasting casualties is the effort at nuclear disarmament. The current disarmament regime is threatened by the open enmity between Russia and America. Perhaps more importantly however, the world has yet another example of a non-nuclear state being bled and humiliated by a more powerful rival in contravention of international law and previous treaty commitments. Does anyone doubt what leaders in Kiev are thinking? “We never should have given up our nuclear weapons in 1994.”[8] The consequences of doing so, and then seeing the most solemn security guarantees evaporate, is a lesson that will be taken to heart by leaders in Tehran, Riyadh and other “threshold” states that feel threatened. The loss of faith in nuclear nonproliferation will undoubtedly reverberate across the world to the detriment of us all.


Sources and Notes

[1] Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Alistair Scrutton and Aija Krutaine, ”International focus turns to bolstering Ukraine ceasefire,” Reuters, 06 March 2015

[2] Mostly small arms fire, some mortar attacks. Heavy weapons appear to be in the process of removal, as per the agreement.

[3] Clár Ní Chonghaile, “Fragile truce brings limited respite to war-weary people of eastern Ukraine,” The Guardian, 25 March 2015

[4] See my article “Ukraine: Russian Reflections”, Common Sense, 15 March 2014

[5] Although Scotland has already gone to the polls last year and voted to remain in the United Kingdom, that doesn’t mean the SNP will accept this outcome forever.

[6] “Discord in Kiev Plays to Russia’s Favor,” Stratfor, 26 March 2015

[7] It doesn’t even require them to be traitors to their country; Ukraine is in desperate straits and its survival is not guaranteed.

[8] This refers to the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. It guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in return for these newly formed states handing over their stockpiles of nuclear armaments to Russia.

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